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The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule (Holt Paperback) Paperback – December 9, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Drawing on evolutionary psychology, Skeptic publisher and Scientific American contributor Shermer (Why People Believe Weird Things) argues that the sources of moral behavior can be traced scientifically to humanity's evolutionary origins. He contends that human morality evolved as first an individual and then a species-wide mechanism for survival. As society evolved, humans needed rules governing behavior-e.g., altruism, sympathy, reciprocity and community concern-in order to ensure survival. Shermer says that some form of the Golden Rule-"Do unto others as you would have others do unto you"-provides the foundation of morality in human societies. Out of this, he develops the principles of what he calls a "provisional ethics" that "is neither absolute nor relative," that applies to most people most of the time, while allowing for "tolerance and diversity." According to the "ask-first" principle, for instance, the performer of an act simply asks its intended receiver whether the act is right or wrong. Other principles include the "happiness" principle ("always seek happiness with someone else's happiness in mind"), the liberty principle ("always seek liberty with someone else's liberty in mind") and the moderation principle ("when innocent people die, extremism in the defense of anything is no virtue, and moderation in the protection of everything is no vice"). Shermer's provisional ethics might reflect the messy ways that human moral behavior developed, but his simplistic principles establish a utilitarian calculus that not everyone will find acceptable. 35 b&w illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audible Audio Edition edition.
The source of morality is the topic under discussion in Shermer's latest book to champion rationalism. Religion received a critique in How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science (1999) and does so again as Shermer offers propositions on the origin of our ordinary, innate sense of right and wrong. Disposing of religion's rival, moral relativism, Shermer dedicates his effort to convincing readers that his thesis, labeled "provisional morality," makes more sense. What that means is that ethical rules are accepted conditionally and are as falsifiable as any scientific theory. Shermer takes this precept into the realm of evolutionary psychology, drawing applied ethics from such drastically different sources as anthropological field studies in Amazonia and the TV show The Honeymooners. Contending that the source of ethics is solely evolutionary, Sherman conducts his argument in an assertive but not gratuitously aggressive fashion. This stance as well as his populistic bent should earn him the hearing that he clearly hopes believers in God will give him. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Audible Audio Edition edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
"The Science of Good and Evil" is an interesting book on the study of morality. It's the study of why humans do what they do, particularly on the social level. Best-selling author and self-proclaimed skeptic Michael Shermer takes a scientific approach to the question of morality. The book specifically deals with the origins of morality and the foundations of ethics. A very sound book published in 2004 that holds up quite well. This solid 368 page-book is broken out into the following two parts: Part I. The Origins of Morality, and Part II. A Science of Provisional Ethics.
1. A fascinating topic in the hands of a master of his craft.
2. A well-written, well-researched, engaging and accessible book. Excellent!
3. Great use of charts and scientific research throughout the book.
4. Shermer is a great communicator. He is a deep thinker with a knack of conveying profound ideas to laypersons. He is not afraid to share his experiences in order to give life to his theories.
5. Thought-provoking look at morality from many angles, particularly scientific ones. "This is why a scientific analysis of morality can be more fruitful than a philosophical one."
6. Shermer has earned my trust over the years. He is genuine, he takes a scientific approach but he is not afraid to tell you how he feels. "Here we cut to the heart of what is, in my opinion the single biggest obstacle to a complete acceptance of the theory of evolution, especially its application to human thought and behavior, particularly in the realm of morality and ethics: the equating of evolution with ethical nihilism and moral degeneration."
7. Shermer lays down his thesis and goes to work, "My thesis is that morality exists outside the human mind in the sense of being not just a trait of individual humans, but a human trait; that is, a human universal."
8. The why and how of morality. Shermer covers eight main ideas that encapsulates his interesting theory: moral naturalism, evolved moral sense, evolved moral society, the nature of moral nature, provisional morality, provisional right and wrong, provisional justice, and ennobling evolutionary ethics.
9. The history of the golden rule.
10. The evolution of morality. "In the last 10,000 years, these moral thoughts and behaviors were codified into moral rules and principles by religions that arose as a direct function of the shift from tribes to chiefdoms to states."
11. An interesting look at war and violence. Many great examples. "In this latter sense I claim that there is no such thing as evil. There is no supernatural force operating outside the realm of the known laws of nature and human behavior that we can call evil."
12. Free will and the problem of determinism. The fascinating history. How it relates to the law.
13. Science and theories that pertain to violence. "One of the fundamental tenets of science is that a theory should be able to explain the exceptions to its generalizations. This is a problem for the computer-game theory of violence, as it is for the other theories."
14. Absolute morality, relative morality and provisional morality. Always an interesting discussion. "There is a middle way between absolute morality and relative morality that I call provisional morality."
15. Religion and how it relates to morality. "The belief that one's faith is the only true religion too often leads to a disturbing level of intolerance, and this intolerance includes the assumption that nonbelievers cannot be as moral as believers."
16. The happiness, liberty, and moderation principles. Many case studies: adultery, pornography, abortion, cloning, and animal rights. Interesting stuff.
17. Shermer's interesting conversion to Christianity and deconversion. "...there was a slow but systematic displacement of one worldview and way of thinking by another: genesis and exodus myths by cosmology and evolution theories; faith by reason; final truths by provisional probabilities; trust by verification; authority by empiricism; and religious supernaturalism by scientific naturalism."
18. A quote fest, "Absolute morality leads logically to absolute intolerance."
19. An interesting look at Ayn Rand's philosophy of objectivism, a form of fixed Aristotelian philosophy.
20. The four tenets of scientific provisionalism: 1. Metaphysics: Provisional Reality. 2. Epistemology: Provisional Naturalism. 3. Ethics: Provisional Morality. 4. Politics: Provisional Libertarianism.
21. Two great appendices.
22. Notes and bibliography.
1. So much has happened since 2004, particularly in the field of neuroscience. The book is dated in those areas but still holds up well.
2. The scientific study of morality is in reality in its infancy, this book is a great start but there is still ways to go. In other words, it's not as science heavy as Shermer may make it out to be.
In summary, I really enjoyed this book. It holds up fairly way for a book that was published in 2004. The scientific study of morality is in its infancy and the book suffers a bit due to the limited scientific knowledge in the field of neuroscience. In other words, the book is not as strong scientifically as one would like but Shermer makes a very strong case nonetheless. Shermer is an excellent author and though this is not his best work, it's a good read and comes highly recommended!
Further suggestions: "The Believing Brain" by the same author, "SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable" by Bruce M. Hood, "Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique, "Hardwired Behavior: What Neuroscience Reveals about Morality" by Laurence Tancredi, "Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality" by Patricia S. Churchland, "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature" by Steven Pinker and "The Brain and the Meaning of Life" by Paul Thagard.
"You do not have to give people a reason to be violent, because they already have plenty of reasons. All you have to do is take away their reasons to restrain themselves."
These are a couple of assumptions from some of the researchers Shermer uses. The premises are very interesting. Perhaps there is not no more famous example than the Prisoner/Guard experiment. Shermer does a brilliant job discussing it in light of Nazi Germany.
(You should also understand Shermer is a strict materialist, he is upfront that he believes evolution explains life and he has no belief in God or supernatural events. He does share these perspectives, so be aware some of his discussion moves into taboo areas for many people, i.e. faith. Or as he puts it, Is it possible to know if there is a God or not? To quote Shermer, "My answer is firmly negative.")
Back to the experiment, it was held at Stanford University. Everyone involved was a student. The so called guards were given sunglasses, a whistle, club and cell keys. The "prisoners" were stripped searched and given uniforms. The experiment was to last 2 weeks, it was ended on day 6. Some "prisoners" were suicidal, some "guards" were cruel and meted out punishment in overdose, using food and light deprivation. Everyone was shocked at the personality changes when students were given new, albeit false, identities. The change took only SIX DAYS.
What are we all capable of? More so, what are we capable of being influenced to do, especially by an authoritative figure or high pressure group and in light unknown consequences? You might be surprised. Shermer has some answers to consider.